Greetings from Fort Myers

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Hrbek Road.jpgPro tip: when the GPS in your car tells you to take a boring interstate and the map in your hand shows you a nice, winding rural route, follow the map every time. Interstates are death.

The trip across the state to Fort Myers was a lot of fun. No traffic, nice weather, a big lake and lots of ranches where cattle grazed amongst palm trees. I stopped and had lunch at some little roadside joint with a sign that said “best food in Okeechobee County.” I didn’t ask if it was the only food in Okeechobee County. That would have been rude.  Good burger, though.

I made it to Fort Myers mid-afternoon, checked into my hotel and decided to run by Hammond Stadium — spring training home of the Twins — to pick up my media credentials for today’s game. The place was mostly empty — the Twins were up in Sarasota playing the Orioles — but the gate was open so I drove on in to what may be the most beautiful ballpark parking lot I’ve ever seen.  There’s a grassy mall lined with palm trees leading to the main gate, with nicely landscaped parking rows on either side. Each row has a street sign, naming it after a Twins great.  As you can see from the pic, I parked on Hrbek Road.  Strangest thing happened though: when I thought I was safely parked, a big dude came over and wrestled me off my space. Cop standing nearby didn’t do anything about it. Huh.

I walked into the empty ballpark and wandered around a bit.  Port St. Lucie and Tradition Field remind me of an office park. Hammond Stadium screams spring training. It’s really a beautiful place. There’s the landscaping, sure, but the facade has this Churchill Downs thing going which walks that line between cheesy and quaint that characterizes all good minor league ballparks.  Inside some men were attending to the infield while the outfield grass was being watered. I sat down on a seat near the third base dugout for a bit, smelling the grass, enjoying the sun and thanking the fates that I get paid to do this.

After a few minutes of bliss I found an elevator which led to the Twins’ offices. It was mostly empty, but a fellow named Dustin Morse was still working. My credential had already been sent down to will call, it seems, and will call was closed for the day, but Dustin was nice enough to fill out a new one for me so I could get to the ballpark early this morning before the ticket booth opened up. After that he gave me the lay of the land at Hammond and patiently answered my questions despite the fact that he probably had 100 more important things to be doing. Great guy, Dustin. And friendly with the sabermetric media too!

I left Hammond, and decided to take a drive down to the beaches, which were emptying out for the day. I met three baseball fans walking along the beach. The first two were a young couple wearing Cardinals’ t-shirts. I chatted with them a bit. They’re from central Illinois and are down here to follow the Cards around (they had been to the Red Sox-Cards game here in Fort Myers that afternoon).  Seems they come to spring training every year. It’s the wife’s obsession more than the husbands, they said. I’m a happily married man and I’m not violent by nature, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have thoughts of bumping the dude off and taking his woman to be my bride.

I met the second one in the parking lot near the beach when I decided to play good samaritan and gave him my little pre-paid parking ticket that still had some time left on it so he wouldn’t have to buy one of his own.  I had on a Giants’ t-shirt and he said “your giving me this may make me have to rethink Giants’ fans.”  I told him I wasn’t a Giants fan. I just liked the shirt.  He said he was relieved to hear that, because he really doesn’t want to have to start liking Giants fans, what with him being a Dodgers guy.  And no, he’s not happy that the Dodgers train in Arizona now.

Back to the ballpark first thing this morning. Twins vs. Cardinals at 1:05 PM.  I’ll be checking in throughout the day. Also if you’re on Twitter, follow me at @craigcalcaterra. I have a tendency to bring the snark during games if that’s your bag.

Matt Boyd earns No. 5 spot in Tigers’ starting rotation

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Matt Boyd has earned the No. 5 spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation, which means veteran Anibal Sanchez will pitch out of the bullpen, MLB.com’s Jason Beck reported on Wednesday.

Boyd, 26, pitched well this spring, compiling a 2.49 ERA with a 21/0 K/BB ratio in 21 2/3 innings. The lefty’s numbers in the majors last year weren’t nearly as good.

Sanchez, 33, is coming off of the worst season of his career and overall didn’t have a great spring, putting up a 5.03 ERA with a 20/4 K/BB ratio in 19 2/3 innings. He came on strong at the end, however, tossing 14 consecutive scoreless innings. Manager Brad Ausmus didn’t rule out the possibility of Sanchez returning to the rotation at some point.

2017 Preview: Oakland Athletics

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Oakland Athletics.

The A’s aren’t gonna be that great this year, you guys. Sorry about that, but it’s true. In this it will be much like last year.

But it will look a bit different than last year at least. The A’s signed Santiago CasillaMatt JoyceTrevor Plouffe and Rajai Davis to a combined $33.25 million in contracts. I don’t see how that makes them appreciably better, but they will be different.

Khris Davis is the biggest offensive weapon. He hit 42 homers last year. Marcus Semien hit 27. And despite those heroics, the A’s offense was dead last in the AL in 2016. Rajai Davis gives them a stolen base threat and Joyce had nice resurgence in a little under 300 plate appearances, but I’m not seeing how this crew is all that better than they were. I mean, I’m sure Trevor Plouffe is a nice young man, but he’s not an offensive difference maker. The biggest chance for improvement comes from a full season of Ryon Healy, who hit quite well in 72 games last year. He was also moved off of third base for Plouffe and into the DH role at the age of 25, so temper your expectations.

Turning to the rotation, Sonny Gray at the top of things looked great heading into last season, but then he regressed badly, posting an unsightly 5.69 ERA in 2016. The A’s don’t need him to be be third in the Cy Young voting again, but they certainly need him to be their ace, and last year he wasn’t that. He’ll get a late start to the season due to a back injury — he may miss the entire first month — so things are already starting off badly.

After Gray comes Sean Manaea, who debuted last year and improved as the season went along. Kendall Graveman was serviceable last year, but he doesn’t miss many bats and it’s hard to pitch well in this league when you’re striking out as few batters as Graveman does. Jharel Cotton is an intriguing fourth starter. He came over in the Rich Hill deal and continued his excellent work in the minors before a late season callup. He is homer-prone but doesn’t walk a ton of guys. Definitely a guy to watch for the future. Andrew Triggs is a swingman who was pressed into the rotation late in the year. The A’s liked what they saw, but he has been a reliever all through the minors. Organizations tend to do that to guys who they don’t think will be decent starters, so I’m not sure what a few starts at the end of a season really mean.

If Gray bounces back to 2015 form, Graveman continues to be lucky on batted balls and the other guys deliver on their small-sample-size promise, hey, things aren’t too bad! But when was the last time that kind of five-for-five gamble paid off? Odds are on a nice surprise here, some stasis there and some regression and/or growing pains mixed in to form a pretty meh rotation. And given that the A’s defense was terrible last year and doesn’t look all that better this year, look for a lot of unearned runs. And earned runs that should’ve been unearned.

The bullpen features some notable names — Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, John Axford and Santiago Casilla have all been closers in the past — with Ryan DullLiam Hendriks and Raul Alcantara providing more depth. Dull is anything but his name. His excellent K/BB ratio last year — 73/15 in 74.1 innings — is downright interesting. These guys will inherit a lot of deficits instead of leads, however, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the A’s trade off a one or two of the ~Proven Closers~ at the deadline as well.

The A’s won 69 games last year. There are three contenders in the division who are significantly better and an Angels team that employs some considerably more talented players despite its obvious flaws. The A’s have just as many flaws and top out with Khris Davis, a rebound candidate starting the year on the DL as their best starter and some interesting young arms. All of that adds up to a long, long summer from where I’m sitting.

Prediction: Fifth place, American League West.